The continuing Ukraine crisis raises both a critical “what if?” question and a pressing policy issue. What if, in April 2008, the Europeans had not rejected President Bush’s proposal to bring Ukraine and Georgia onto a clearly defined path to joining NATO? And today, urgently, should we try again for NATO membership?

When the alliance’s 2008 Bucharest Summit rejected the U.S. plan for Ukraine and Georgia, the defeat was widely attributed to Bush’s unpopularity, stemming from the Iraq war, a convenient excuse for both Europeans and America’s media. The real reason, however, was Europe’s growing reliance on Russian oil and gas, and its barely concealed fear of Moscow’s response to NATO admitting two critical constituent parts of the former USSR.

Moscow has long understood Western cowardice. Just four months after Bucharest, in a laboratory-like causal connection rare in global politics, Russia dramatically escalated its simmering conflict with Georgia, bombing its tiny neighbor and surging troops to within 30 miles of the capital, Tbilisi. Faced with a U.S. response that looks robust compared with our reaction today in Ukraine, Russia withdrew to Abkhazia and South Ossetia, the two provinces it most wanted to hive off, and hunkered down into the stalemate that Georgia still endures.

Then-candidate Barack Obama initially called for both Russia and Georgia to exercise restraint, a form of blindness and moral equivalence the Kremlin noted. (After intense criticism, Obama tried to walk back his first reaction.) With its term waning, and facing a daunting economic crisis, the Bush administration did little more for Georgia or Ukraine.

Obama, by contrast, entered office in 2009 on a wave of domestic and international popularity, shortly thereafter winning the Nobel Peace Prize for no apparent reason. He might well have contemplated the long-term significance of Georgia and Ukraine, but he did not. Instead, intent on blaming Bush for problems in the U.S.-Russia bilateral relationship, Obama unveiled the “reset” button, exemplifying his new policy direction. Out went the national missile defense sites in Poland and the Czech Republic, and in came the lamentable New START arms control treaty (precisely the kind of Cold War thinking Obama would later deride). Other errors followed, including relying on Russian diplomacy to help oust Syria’s Assad regime and eliminate Iran’s nuclear-weapons program, neither of which Moscow had any intention of doing. After Obama induced Russia to support a Security Council resolution that led to the overthrow of Libya’s Qaddafi, Moscow concluded it would do Obama no more favors despite all his prior concessions.

Obama left Ukraine and Georgia to fend for themselves, ignoring the politico-military reality that Russia instinctively understood. He thereby left open the vulnerability that Bush had tried to close in April 2008. Many who now oppose robust U.S. efforts to protect Ukraine from Russian depredation and partition assert that we have no serious interests there, and accordingly also reject any hint we might once again consider NATO membership. Yet, in the long term, joining the alliance is the only strategy that can realistically secure Georgian and Ukrainian sovereignty and keep alive the option of joining the West more broadly. Modest NATO force redeployments to nearby countries, signing near-meaningless political declarations, and multiyear commitments to strengthen economic ties with the West will do little to shift today’s economic, political, or military advantage away from Russia and toward Ukraine and Georgia.

Some argue that NATO should never have admitted any ex-Warsaw Pact members, and most certainly should not have added former Soviet republics, because geography and history relegated these countries to Russia’s sphere of influence. That argument has the virtue of consistency, but nothing more. In fact, it proves too much. One could as easily argue that Poland is in Germany’s sphere of influence rather than Russia’s. That kind of dispute, in short form, is why Europe saw two world wars in the 20th century. It is precisely to prevent such wars, and thus further effusions of American blood, that we bring otherwise vulnerable countries into NATO, thereby simultaneously protecting U.S. interests and stabilizing Europe.

NATO rightly rejected the untenable view, amounting to appeasement, that Central and Eastern Europe fall naturally and inevitably into Russia’s sphere of influence, and that bringing them into NATO unnecessarily and unfairly provokes Moscow. NATO is and always has been simply a defensive alliance shielding those of like mind and interest. Russia has no claims strong enough or legitimate enough to justify its dominating unwilling neighbors.

As for the three Baltic republics, admitted to NATO in 2004, the United States never recognized the legitimacy of the USSR’s snuffing out their national independence to begin with. But having expanded into former Soviet territory, NATO paused, failing to pursue its own logic decisively. Leaving Ukraine and Georgia in a no-man’s land between NATO and Russia was an invitation to meddling by Moscow, and ultimately to chaos and conflict. That is what we have now, and what Bush tried to forestall in 2008. Obama did not pursue Bush’s proposal, in part because of his general lack of interest in U.S. national security issues; in part because he was pressing the “reset” button; and in part because he does not accept the basic premise that unity against aggression is the best way to ensure international peace and security.

In fact, in his September 2009 U.N. General Assembly speech, Obama said, “It is my deeply held belief that in the year 2009, more than at any point in human history, the interests of nations and peoples are shared. .  .  . No world order that elevates one nation or group or people over another will succeed. No balance of power among nations will hold.” He clearly believed instead that the reset button would produce a more congenial Russia, and that there was no need for “Cold War” foreign policies. What is happening today in Ukraine proves how wrong he was.

NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia undoubtedly carries risks, but no alternative policy can provide anything like the necessary security to stop further Russian interference. The Europeans missed an excellent chance to reduce the risks in 2008, and now, of course, they are even more dependent on Russian hydrocarbons than they were then. Ironically, perhaps Russia’s increased economic power will finally put paid to the argument that greater commercial ties inevitably reduce the chances for war. In fact, expanded trade between Russia and the EU has enhanced Russia’s leverage, not Europe’s. This anomaly need not have materialized, and extraordinary opportunities certainly now exist to reverse or at least neutralize Russia’s oil and gas assets by once again making America a net energy exporter. Even announcing such a policy would be an economic disincentive to Russia, but Obama has done effectively the opposite throughout his presidency.

Had the Europeans backed Bush in 2008, we might well have deterred Russian military and political aggression in both Georgia and Ukraine. In truth, Europe’s timidity is a real obstacle to a more assertive response to Russian aggression. But Obama’s own weakness has created a vicious circle. European fears provide Obama with an excuse not to act, and the failure of U.S. leadership leaves Europe even more reluctant to respond effectively. It may be that Europe is not up to the task, but we will never find out if America does not first at least try to exercise leadership, which Obama has consistently failed to do.

The stakes are high for Ukraine and Georgia, but they are equally high for all the other former Soviet republics, which understand that if Russia continues to get its way, they will not be far behind. Further afield, no one is watching more carefully than China. Western failure in Ukraine will be palpable evidence to Beijing that ramping up its near-belligerent territorial claims in the East and South China Seas is likely to be met with little more than rhetorical American opposition. While other Asian countries affected by China’s demands may not fold as easily as Europe, without Washington in the equation, there is little doubt what the end result will be.

U.S. political operatives tell us endlessly that our fellow citizens do not care about national security issues. Ukraine, however, has been one of many wake-up calls under Obama signaling Americans that protecting our country is critically important in its own right, whatever the politics. And skilled politicians, whether Hillary Clinton for the Democrats or Candidate X for the Republicans, will soon realize that what is good for the country is also good for their electoral prospects.

John R. Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations in 2005-06.

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